John Heartfield, where are you when we need you most?

(published Nokia Online Journal late '98)

This season has seen electronic media events take a rhetorically combative turn, with such themes as "info-war" (Ars Electronica) and "revolution" (ISEA). In this millenial moment when Digital Art becomes increasingly institutionalised, along with being already entirely bound to the flows of industrial capitalism, what can this mean? Is it a pitiable nostalgia for the days when electronic media art practice was marginalised? Is it a tacit acknowledgement that the electronic domain is so thoroughly compromised and surveilled as to render activism impossible. (Or is it simply that appropriate political strategies remain to be devised?)

What does it mean when a respected digital art festival seemingly sidesteps the aesthetic so completely? This is a Janus-faced move, which might simultaneously appear to be a bold embracing of hacker activism, while alternatively it might be seen as the aesthetisation of political action. And those familar with the discourses of activist art will recall that the move out of the museum, onto the street, was one which at least in part, was concerned with shrugging off the "frame" of high art because it had the effect of neutralising political forceby instantly aesthetising it .

Is this net-generation so acclimatised to the post-modern cynicism of wanton adoption of fictive identities that it cannnot differentiate between the simulation of political action and actual action? Maria Fernandez refers to this trivialisation of activist imagery as the "Bennetton syndrome".

Some month ago, Paul Garrin noted that the much admired detachment of Duchamp must be seen in the light of his flight from occupied France, where many of his contemporaries continued to fight in the resistance (while others were accused of colaboration). It is useful to compare the career of Duchamp with that of John Heartfield. While Duchamp avoided work and mused over chess problems in New York, Heartfield risked his life daily in Berlin and Prague. (see Zygosis, an excellent documentary on the life of Heartfield by Gavin Hodge). While Heartfield returned to East Germany to work with Bertold Brecht, Duchamp became the darling of the postwar NewYork avant-garde. Was Duchamp chosen? In a cynical moment one may reflect on the aptness of Duchamps idolisation in cold-war USA. Though presented as diametrically opposed to the hot-headed petulance of Abstract Expressionism (epitomised the character of Pollock), both groupings shared a deep antipathy to social engagement.

More than one commentator has identified "computer art" as the last bastion of modernism. It has been, by and large, a fairly aesthetised and de-politicised affair. This is all the more strange since the practice arose during a time when activist, socially engaged art practice became a major movement. On the other hand, it is not surprising given that half the impetus for the practice came from the discipline of computer science, which, having made its Faustian bargain with the military-industrial complex, is condemned to permanent erasure of social conscience.

We are in a complex cultural moment. Public space is being rapidly privatised and that which remains is left for vagrants and becomes dangerous. In the absence of the commonsâ "free speech" can only occur over mediated, often privatised channels. When taking part in public debate neccessitates the purchase of thousands of dollars worth of hardware, software and infrastructure, the collapse of the democratic model becomes evident.

In recent years there has been substantial mobilisation in some quarters to maintain the possibility of free speech in digital domains. But rapid action by private interests, along with slovenliness and confusion among lawmakers, seems to usurp such advances as soon as they are made. This mobilisation has been concerned largely with the safeguarding of the possibility of free speech, of making a place where it can exist. This is laudable and neccessary, but while some recent projects give one grounds for optimism, it remains to be seen if an activist artistic practice can survive in the digital, and if so, what forms it will take. In this era of rapidly changing technologies, the notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (Hakim Bey) is particularly pertinent. It is clear that the most fruitful opportunities for creative intervention occur prior to the institutionalisation of those technologies.

These are complex issues and forgoing can be little but an abstract for a study which would more thoroughly examine this subject.

Simon Penny September 1998